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Public Fist Getting Heavier in the Face of Climate Change

07.20.22 | Blog | By:

During a recent webinar, a senior policy officer of the European Commission made a short, quite plausible, summary of what some name an apparent obsession in Brussels, electromobility as the silver bullet to decarbonize transport:

  1. The climate objectives are so high, net zero emissions by 2050,
  2. The replacement of fossils, coal and natural gas, in electricity generation by low-carbon, nuclear and renewables, wind and solar, biomass in cogeneration, biogas, definitely is the most feasible and fastest element of the decarbonization effort at large, as supported in the EU by the impressive growth since 1990, thus,
  3. The best bet for the tough decarbonization of (road) transport of course should be to heavily support an all-out transition toward electromobility.

This does not mean liquid fuels, the enduring transportation energy vector that will be around for still several more decades, will not be subject to decarbonization. Quite the contrary, actually, as biofuels, first-generation and advanced, scientifically demonstrated as renewable and sustainable beyond reasonable doubt, are still mandated by regulation, and growing in incorporation rate, but under the radar. Hush, hush, says the European Commission!

A bet it is, indeed, as many formidable hurdles are on the way of electromobility uptake, heavily documented in the heated debate about transport decarbonization: Technology, like battery autonomy, materials supply and cost thereof; infrastructure, duplicating the extensive, ubiquitous, network of service-stations that take range anxiety out of motorists; low-carbon electricity availability and affordability.

The latter is indeed challenging, as so many sectors claim electricity is the only way to adapt to climate change and be considered sustainable, which could become a key issue for financing: in a non-exhaustive shortlist of major GHG emitters, we find the steel and fertilizer industries, respectively to replace coal by direct reduction of ore and to replace natural gas for intermediate hydrogen production so as to produce ammonia and urea.

But the two other pillars of the Anthropocene, the other two major emitters in the industry, concrete and plastics, would not be shy either in using renewable electricity. And it has not escaped IRENA, the intergovernmental organization that supports the transition to renewable energy, that, up to now, impressive capacity additions in renewable electricity production have not managed to dent the share of fossil-based electricity production, in the pre-existing context of a massive growth in electricity demand (+25 % in the previous decade): if electricity demand is to triple by 2050, how can we ensure this “increment” will be fossil-free?

This million-dollar question is legitimate, for those having lived in a neo-liberal space for the last three decades, having been told the market knew better how to improve our life, even if it is only from a purely mercantile point of view, and so it did for so many humans, but fueled by fossil energy, and the end of the party looms, sooner than later. Why would the market, in essence short-term orientated, choose renewable energy, more expensive, to supply more electricity, when there is so much cheap coal and gas at hand? Well, there are some interesting tell-tales, low-noise signals in modern language, loud in some cases, to observe, that have to do with politicians and regulators shaking off the neo-liberal cloak and going back to public decision-making, I have listed some here below:

The not scientific, strictly political, proposal by the EU Commission to de facto ban internal combustion engine vehicles from car sales in 2035 (de jure: imposing zero CO2 emissions for new vehicles) goes against a strong industry, in France, in Germany, in Italy, heavyweights of the European Union: remains to see how the EU Council of Member States will amend this proposal, voted by the EU Parliament, noting the German government has already vetoed the proposal and France would prefer 2040. Still, such a decision is bound to create a huge disruption in the car-making ecosystem, with hundreds of thousands of jobs on the block, not a minor issue in any democracy of the Old World of welfare states: some carmakers resist the move, but the European Commission does not listen.

In France, a nation where the State has been historically strong, centralized, re-nationalization of the partially-privatized (during the liberal parenthesis) legacy electricity production company, EDF, is seriously considered: so, even if the forthcoming EU Taxonomy excludes nuclear as a “green” pathway, according to the will of a majority of EU representatives, reducing the sources of financing for new projects, this could end up as a minor inconvenience in France, the nuclear energy stronghold in Europe. By the way, a recent study claims nuclear plants emit twice less CO2 than wind turbines across their whole useful life, a solid justification not to ditch nuclear energy in the context of the future massive extra demand for electricity.

And “Ecological Planification” is not a gross or rude term anymore in French, actually becoming a key Prime Minister responsibility.

In Germany, a much more federal, read decentralized, country than France, the Federal Government, through his all-powerful Minister of Economy, Robert Habeck (Die Grünen), has recently shown serious intentions to infringe on a significant regional (Länder) prerogative, namely to limit civil society obstruction against on-shore wind energy projects, claiming renewable electricity is key for national security, no less, and intending to quadruple the land area allocated to wind turbines, up to 2 %, ten times the surface of New York City.

Even in the United Kingdom, where the NIMBY concept is oftentimes dated back to the beginning of the industrial revolution, lithium mining in the charming English countryside does not seem to be anathema any more. And mining is a heavily regulated activity, even in a neo-liberal paradise as the UK (just watch Ken Loach’s movies).

The adaptation to climate change is not an exact science and managing uncertainty is never comfortable for elected politicians in our democracies. But looks like adapting to climate change more and more rhymes with an unwelcome, but unavoidable, reduction (optimists call it change for the better) in our standard of living: increased prices for food and energy; allocation of a large chunk of national finances in favor of the massive investments in renewables, at the expense of other services, due to debt constraints; additional cost of re-shored activities due to de-globalization. The management of the public perception and acceptance of this bleak future will be key for political stability and to avoid populist adventures in terra incognita and will necessitate a strong public iron hand to make the tough decisions, in a velvet glove?

Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).

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